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250px Dante shown holding a copy of The Divine Comedy, next to the entrance to Hell, the seven terraces of Mount Purgatory and the city of Florence, with the spheres of Heaven above, in Michelino's fresco.

The Divine Comedy (Italian: Commedia, later christened "Divina" by Giovanni Boccaccio), written by Dante Alighieri between 1308 and his death in 1321, is widely considered the central epic poem of Italian literature, the last great work of literature of the Middle Ages and the first great work of the Renaissance, and one of the greatest works of world literature.

Structure and story

The Divine Comedy is composed of three canticas (or "cantiche"), Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise), composed respectively of 34, 33 and 33 cantos. The first cantica, Inferno, is by far the most famous of the three, and is often published separately under the title Dante's Inferno. As a part of the whole literary work, the first canto serves as an introduction to the entire Divine Comedy, making each of the cantiche 33 canti long. The number 3 is prominent in the work, represented here by the length of each cantica (also, three is the sacred number of the trinity and the rhyme scheme is believed by many critics to imply that in order to go forward, one must go back). Also, that they add up to 100 canti is not accidental. The verse scheme used, terza rima, is the hendecasyllable (line of eleven syllables), with the lines composing tercets according to the rhyme scheme ABA BCB CDC . . . YZY Z.

The poet tells in the first person his travel through the three realms of the dead, lasting during Holy Week in the spring of 1300. His guide through Hell and Purgatory is the Latin poet Virgil, author of The Aeneid, and the guide through Paradise is Beatrice Portinari, Dante's ideal of a perfect woman. Beatrice was a real Florentine woman whom he met in childhood and admired from afar in the mode of the then-fashionable courtly love tradition.

In Northern Italy's political struggle between Guelphs and Ghibellines, Dante was part of the Guelphs, who in general favored the Papacy over the Holy Roman Emperor. Florence's Guelphs split into factions around 1300: the White Guelphs, who opposed secular rule by Pope Boniface VIII and who wished to preserve Florence's independence, and the Black Guelphs, who favored the Pope's control of Florence. Dante was among the White Guelphs who were exiled from Florence in 1302 after troops under Charles of Valois entered the city, at the request of Boniface and in alliance with the Blacks. This exile, which lasted the rest of Dante's life, shows its influence in many parts of the Comedy, from prophecies of Dante's exile to Dante's views of politics to the damnation of some of his opponents.

In Hell and Purgatory, Dante shares in the sin and the pentinence respectively. The last word in each of the three parts of The Divine Comedy is "stars."


Gustave Doré engravings illustrated The Divine Comedy (1861-1868), here Dante is lost in Canto 1.

The poem begins on Good Friday of the year 1300, "In the middle of our life's journey" (Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita), and so opens in medias res. Dante is thirty-five years old, half of the biblically allotted age of 70 (Psalm 90:10), lost in a dark wood (perhaps, allegorically, contemplating suicide—as "wood" is figured in Canto XIII), assailed by beasts (a lion, a leopard, and a she-wolf; allegorical depictions of temptations towards sin) he cannot evade, and unable to find the "straight way" (diritta via) to salvation (symbolized by the sun behind the mountain). Conscious that he is ruining himself, that he is falling into a "deep place" (basso loco) where the sun is silent ('l sol tace), Dante is at last rescued by Virgil after his love Beatrice intercedes on his behalf (Canto II), and he and Virgil begin their journey to the underworld.

Dante passes through the Gate of Hell, on which is inscribed the famous phrase, "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate" or "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." There are many English translations of this famous line. Some examples include

  • All hope abandon, ye who enter in! - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1882)
  • All hope abandon, ye who enter here - Henry Francis Cary (1888)
  • Leave all hope, ye that enter - Carlyle-Wicksteed (1932)
  • Abandon every hope, you who enter. - Charles S. Singleton (1970)
  • Abandon all hope, ye who enter here - John Ciardi (1977)
  • Abandon every hope, who enter here. - Allen Mandelbaum (1982)
  • Abandon all hope, you who enter here - Robert Pinsky (1993)
  • Abandon every hope, all you who enter - Mark Musa (1995)
  • Abandon every hope, you who enter." - Robert M. Durling (1996)
  • All hope abandon, you who enter here. - James Finn Cotter (2000) [1]

Before entering Hell completely, Dante and his guide see the Opportunists, souls of people who in life did nothing, neither for good nor evil. Mixed with them are the outcasts, who took no side in the Rebellion of Angels (among these Dante recognizes either Pope Celestine V, or Pontius Pilate; the text is ambiguous). These souls are neither in Hell nor out of it, but reside on the shores of the Acheron, their punishment to eternally pursue a banner, and be pursued by wasps and hornets that continually sting them while maggots and other such insects drink their blood and tears. This symbolizes the sting of their conscience.

Then Dante and Virgil reach the ferry that will take them across the river Acheron and to Hell proper. The ferry is piloted by Charon, who does not want to let Dante enter, for he is a living being. Their passage across is unknown since Virgil forces him to let them across, but Dante faints and does not awake until he is on the other side.

Virgil guides Dante through the nine circles of Hell. The circles are concentric, each new one representing further and further evil, culminating in the center of the earth, where Satan is held, bound. Each circle's sin is punished in an ironic fashion: the sinner is inflicted by the chief sin he committed for all of eternity. Sinners such as these are found in Purgatory, but those in hell justify their sin and are unrepentant. Furthermore, those in hell have knowledge of the past and future, but not of the present. This is a joke on them in Dante's mind because after the Final Judgment time ends, those in hell would know nothing. The nine circles are:

The Circles of Hell

  • First Circle (Limbo). Here reside the unbaptized and the virtuous pagans, who, though not sinful, did not accept Christ. They are not punished in an active sense, but rather grieve only their separation from God, without hope of reconciliation. The chief irony in this circle is that Limbo shares many characteristics with Elysian Fields, thus the damned are punished by living in their deficient form of heaven. Their crime was that they lacked faith-- the hope for something greater than rational minds can assume. Limbo includes fields and a castle, the dwelling place of virtuous souls of wisdom, including Virgil himself. In the castle Dante meets the poets Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan. (Canto IV) One is led to assume that all virtuous pagans find themselves here, but at least two are found in heaven and one in purgatory.

All of the condemned sinners are judged by Minos, who sentences each soul to one of the lower eight circles. These are structured according to the classical (Aristotelian) conception of virtue and vice, so that they are grouped into the sins of incontinence, violence, and fraud (which for many commentators are represented by the leopard, lion, and she-wolf. There is no general agreement on which animals is represented by the sins incontinence, violence, and fraud. Some see it as the she-wolf, lion, and leopard respectively, while others see it as the leopard, lion, and she-wolf respectively. The sins of incontinence — weakness in controlling one's desires and natural urges — are the mildest among them, and, correspondingly, appear first:

  • Second Circle. Those overcome by lust are punished in this circle. These souls are blown about to and fro by a violent storm, without hope of rest. This symbolizes the power of lust to blow one about needlessly and aimlessly. Francesca da Rimini tells Dante how she and her husband's brother Paolo committed adultery and died a violent death at the hands of her husband. (Canto V)
  • Third Circle. Cerberus guards the gluttons, forced to lie in the mud under continual cold rain and hail. Dante converses with a Florentine contemporary identified as Ciacco ("Hog" - probably a nickname) regarding strife in Florence and the fate of prominent Florentines. (Canto VI) Dante shares in the sin by being a "glutton for information," by attempting to extract information about the future from Ciacco for political gain.
  • Fourth Circle. Those whose concern for material goods deviated from the desired mean are punished in this circle. They include the avaricious or miserly, who hoarded possessions, and the prodigal, who squandered them. Guarded by Plutus, each group pushes a great weight against the heavy weight of the other group. After the weights crash together the process starts over again. (Canto VII)
  • Fifth Circle. In the swamp-like water of the river Styx, the wrathful fight each other on the surface, and the sullen or slothful lie gurgling beneath the water. Phlegyas reluctantly transports Dante and Virgil across the Styx in his skiff. On the way they are accosted by Filippo Argenti, a Black Guelph from a prominent family. (Cantos VII and VIII)

The lower parts of hell are contained within the walls of the city of Dis, which is itself surrounded by the Styx. Punished within Dis are active (rather than passive) sins. The walls of Dis are guarded by fallen angels. Virgil is unable to convince them to let Dante and him enter, and the Furies threaten Dante. An angel sent from Heaven secures entry for the poets. (Cantos VIII and IX)

  • Sixth Circle. Heretics are trapped in flaming tombs. Dante discourses with a pair of Florentines in one of the tombs: Farinata degli Uberti, a Ghibelline; and Cavalcante de' Cavalcanti, a Guelph who was the father of Dante's friend, fellow poet Guido Cavalcanti. (Cantos X and XI)
  • Seventh Circle. This circle houses the violent. Its entry is guarded by the Minotaur, and it is divided into three rings:
    • Outer ring, housing the violent against people and property, who are immersed in Phlegethon, a river of boiling blood, to a level commensurate with their sins. The Centaurs, commanded by Chiron, patrol the ring. The centaur Nessus guides the poets along Phlegethon and across a ford in the river. (Canto XII)
    • Middle ring: In this ring are the suicides, who are transformed into gnarled thorny bushes and trees that are only able to speak when a branch is broken. They are torn at by the Harpies. Unique among the dead, the suicides will not be bodily resurrected after the final judgment. Instead they will maintain their bushy form, with their own corpses hanging from the limbs. Dante breaks a twig off of one of the bushes and hears the tale of Pietro della Vigna who committed suicide after falling out of favor with Roman Emperor Frederick II. The profligate wasters, the other residents of this ring, are chased by ferocious dogs through the thorny undergrowth. (Canto XIII)
    • Inner ring: The violent against God (blasphemers), the violent against nature (sodomites), and the violent against art (usurers), all reside in a desert of flaming sand with fiery flakes raining from the sky. The blasphemers lie on the sand, the usurers sit, and the sodomites wander about in groups. Dante converses with two Florentine sodomites from different groups: Brunetto Latini, a poet; and Iacopo Rusticucci, a politician. (Cantos XIV through XVII) It is important to note that it was not Dante's position that all sodomites were destined for hell fire, for repentant sodomites can be found on the top of Mount Purgatory.

The last two circles of Hell punish sins that involve conscious fraud or treachery. The circles can be reached only by descending a vast cliff, which Dante and Virgil do on the back of Geryon, a winged monster represented by Dante as having the head of an honest man and a body that ends in a scorpion-like stinger. (Canto XVII)

  • Eighth Circle. The fraudulent—those guilty of deliberate, knowing evil—are located in a circle named Malebolge ("Evil Pockets"), divided into ten ditches, with bridges spanning the ditches:
    • Ditch 1: Panderers and seducers walk in separate lines in opposite directions, whipped by demons. (Canto XVIII)
      Dante's guide rebuffs Malacoda and his fiends between ditches five and six in the eighth circle of Inferno, Canto 21.
    • Ditch 2: Flatterers are steeped in human excrement. (Canto XVIII)
    • Ditch 3: Those who committed simony are placed head-first in holes in the rock, with flames burning on the soles of their feet. One of them, Pope Nicholas III, denounces as simonists two of his successors, Pope Boniface VIII and Pope Clement V. (Canto XIX)
    • Ditch 4: Sorcerers and false prophets have their heads twisted around on their bodies backward, so they can only see what is behind them. (Canto XX)
    • Ditch 5: Corrupt politicians (barrators) are immersed in a lake of boiling pitch, guarded by devils, the Malebranche ("Evil Claws"). Their leader, Malacoda ("Evil Tail"), assigns a troop to escort Virgil and Dante to the next bridge. The troop hook and torment Ciampolo, who identifies some Italian grafters and then tricks the Malebranche in order to escape back into the pitch. (Cantos XXI through XXIII)
    • Ditch 6: Hypocrites listlessly walk along wearing gold-gilded lead cloaks. Dante speaks with Catalano and Loderingo, members of the Jovial Friars. (Canto XXIII)
    • Ditch 7: Thieves, guarded by the centaur (as Dante describes him) Cacus, are pursued and bitten by snakes. The snake bites make them undergo various transformations, with some resurrected after being turned to ashes, some mutating into new creatures, and still others exchanging natures with the snakes, becoming snakes themselves that chase the other thieves in turn. (Cantos XXIV and XXV)
    • Ditch 8: Fraudulent advisors are encased in individual flames. Dante includes Ulysses and Diomedes together here for their role in the Trojan War. Ulysses tells the tale of his fatal final voyage, where he left his home and family to sail to the end of the Earth. He equated life as a pursuit of knowledge that humanity can attain through effort, and in his search God sank his ship outside of Mount Purgatory. This symbolizes the inability of the individual to carve out one's own salvation. Instead, one must be totally subservient to the will of God and realize the inability of one to be a God unto oneself. Guido da Montefeltro recounts how his advice to Pope Boniface VIII resulted in his damnation, despite Boniface's promise of absolution. (Cantos XXVI and XXVII)
    • Ditch 9: A sword-wielding devil hacks at the sowers of discord. As they make their rounds the wounds heal, only to have the devil tear apart their bodies again. Muhammad tells Dante to warn the schismatic and heretic Fra Dolcino. (Cantos XXVIII and XXIX)
    • Ditch 10: Groups of various sorts of falsifiers (alchemists, counterfeiters, perjurers, and impersonators) are afflicted with different types of diseases. (Cantos XXIX and XXX)

The ninth circle is ringed by classical and Biblical giants. The giants are standing either on, or on a ledge above, the ninth circle of Hell, and are visible from the waist up at the ninth circle of the Malebolge. The giant Antaeus lowers Dante and Virgil into the pit that forms the ninth circle of Hell. (Canto XXXI)

Satan is trapped in the frozen central zone in Canto 34.
  • Ninth Circle. Traitors, distinguished from the "merely" fraudulent in that their acts involve betraying one in a special relationship to the betrayer, are frozen in a lake of ice known as Cocytus. Each group of traitors is encased in ice to a different height, ranging from only the waist down to complete immersion. The circle is divided into four concentric zones:
    • Zone 1: Caïna, named for Cain, is home to traitors to their kindred. (Canto XXXII)
    • Zone 2: Antenora is named for Antenor of Troy, who according to medieval tradition betrayed his city to the Greeks. Traitors to political entities, such as party, city, or country, are located here. Count Ugolino della Gherardesca pauses from gnawing on the head of his rival Archbishop Ruggieri to describe how Ruggieri imprisoned and starved him and his children. (Cantos XXXII and XXXIII)
    • Zone 3: Ptolomæa is probably named for Ptolemy, the captain of Jericho, who invited Simon Maccabaeus and his sons to a banquet and there killed them. Traitors to their guests are punished here. Fra Alberigo explains that sometimes a soul falls here before the time that Atropos (the Fate who cuts the thread of life) should send it. Their bodies on Earth are immediately possessed by a fiend. (Canto XXXIII)
    • Zone 4: Judecca is for traitors to their lords and benefactors. At the center is Satan, who has three faces, one red, one black, and one a pale yellow, each having a mouth that chews on a prominent traitor. Satan himself is represented as a giant, terrifying beast, weeping tears from his six eyes, which mix with the traitors' blood sickeningly. He is waist deep in ice, and beats his six wings as if trying to escape, but the icy wind that emanates only further ensures his imprisonment (as well as that of the others in the ring). The sinners in the mouths of Satan are Brutus and Cassius in the left and right mouths, respectively, who were involved in the assassination of Julius Caesar (an act which, to Dante, represented the destruction of a unified Italy), and Judas Iscariot]] (the namesake of this zone) in the central, most vicious mouth, who betrayed Jesus. Judas is being administered the most horrifying torture of the three traitors, his head in the mouth of Lucifer, and his back being forever skinned by the claws of Lucifer. (Canto XXXIV) What is seen here is a perverted trinity. Satan is impotent, ignorant, and evil while God can be attributed as the opposite: all powerful, all knowing, and good.

The two poets escape by climbing the ragged fur of Lucifer, passing through the center of the earth, emerging in the other hemisphere just before dawn on Easter Sunday beneath a sky studded with stars.


Having survived the depths of Hell, Dante and Virgil ascend out of the undergloom, to the Mountain of Purgatory on the far side of the world (in Dante's time, it was believed that Hell existed underneath Jerusalem). Dante starts the ascent on Mount Purgatory. Those in purgatory can leave their circle whenever they like, but essentially there is an honors system where no one leaves until they have corrected the nature within themselves that caused them to commit that sin. Souls can only move upwards and never backwards, since the intent of Purgatory is for souls to ascend towards God in Heaven, and can ascend only during daylight hours, since the light of God is the only true guidance. The initial parts of the book describe the shore of Purgatory (Cantos I and II) and its slopes. At the shores of Purgatory, Dante and Virgil are attracted by a musical performance by Casella, but are reprimanded by Cato, a pagan who through God's grace has a role to play in purgatory. It is debatable whether or not his soul is destined for heaven.

The Ante-Purgatory hosts those who were excommunicated, those too lazy to repent until shortly before death, and those who suffered violent deaths (often due to leading extremely sinful lives), all awaiting their turn to ascend the mountain thanks to their genuine repentance (Cantos III through VI). Likewise, those who were not zealous and late in their faith are lazy in their ascent up Mount Purgatory. Finally, there is a valley housing European rulers and others whose devotion to public and private duties hampered their faith (Cantos VII and VIII). From this valley Dante is carried (while asleep) up to the gates of Purgatory proper (Canto IX).

From there, Virgil guides the pilgrim Dante through the seven terraces of Purgatory. These correspond to the seven deadly sins, each terrace purging a particular sin in an appropriate manner.

The Terraces of Purgatory

On the first three terraces of Purgatory are purified those whose sins were caused by perverted love, love directed toward vice instead of God.

  • First Terrace: Pride, by carrying a heavy weight on their backs. The wearer is unable to stand up straight (Cantos X through XII). This teaches the sinner that pride puts weight on the soul and it is better to throw it off. Furthermore, there are stones of historical and mythological examples of pride to learn from. With the weight on one's back, one cannot help but see this carved pavement and learn from it. After completing this terrace, like every terrace, an Angel clears a letter P from Dante's head. Each time a P is removed, Dante's body feels lighter, because he becomes less and less weighed down from sin.
  • Second Terrace: Envy, by having one's eyes sewn shut, and wearing clothing that makes the soul indistinguishable from the ground (Cantos XIII through XV). This is akin to a Falconer who sews the eyes of a falcon shut in order to train it. God is the Falconer and is training the souls not to envy others and to direct their love towards Him.
  • Third Terrace: Wrath, by walking around in acrid smoke (Cantos XV through XVII). Souls correct themselves by learning how wrath has blinded their vision, impeding their judgment.

On the fourth terrace we find sinners whose sin was that of deficient love - that is, sloth or acedia.

  • Fourth Terrace: Sloth, by continually running (Cantos XVIII and XIX). Those who were slothful in life can only purge this sin by being zealous in their desire for penance.

On the fifth through seventh terraces are those who sinned by loving good things, but loving them in a disordered way.

  • Fifth Terrace: Avarice & Prodigality, by lying face-down on the ground, unable to move (Cantos XIX through XXI). Excessive concern for earthly goods - either by greed or frugality - is punished and purified. Here, the sinner learns to want to turn away from earthly concern to God.
  • Sixth Terrace: Gluttony, by abstaining from any food or drink (Cantos XXII through XXIV). Here, people's desire to eat a forbidden fruit causes their shade to starve. Once they master their desire to be a glutton, their appetite for sin leaves them and they are no longer starved by it.
  • Seventh Terrace: Lust, by burning in an immense wall of flames (Cantos XXV through XXVII). All of those who committed both heterosexual and homosexual sodomy are here and are purified by a baptism of fire. Excessive sexual desire misdirects one's love from God and this terrace is meant to correct that.

The ascent of the mountain culminates at the summit, which is the Garden of Eden (Cantos XXVIII through XXXIII). This terrace is meant to return one to a state of innocence that existed before the sin of Adam and Eve caused the fall from grace. Here Dante meets Matelda, a woman of grace and beauty who prepares souls for their ascent to heaven. With her Dante witnesses a highly symbolic procession that may be read as an allegory of the Church. One participant in the procession is Beatrice, whom Dante loved in childhood, and at whose request Virgil was commissioned to bring Dante on his journey.

Virgil, as a pagan, is a permanent denizen of Limbo, the first circle of Hell, and may not enter Paradise. Beatrice then becomes the second guide (accompanied by an extravagant procession), and will accompany Dante through the Paradise.

Dante drinks from the River Lethe, which causes the soul to forget past sins, and then from the River Eunoe, which effects the renewal of memories of good deeds. Thus purified, souls can direct their love fully towards God to the best of their inherent capability to do so. They are then ready to leave Mount Purgatory for Paradise. Being totally purged of sin, the Purgatorio ends with Dante's vision aimed at the stars, anticipating his ascent to heaven.


After an initial ascension (Canto I), Beatrice guides Dante through the nine spheres of Heaven. These are concentric and spherical, similar to Aristotelian and Ptolemaic cosmology. Dante admits that the vision of heaven he receives is the one that his human eyes permit him to see. Thus, the vision of heaven found in the Cantos is Dante's own personal vision, ambiguous in its true construction. The addition of a moral dimension means that a soul that has reached Paradise stops at the level applicable to it. Souls are allotted to the point of heaven that fits with their human ability to love God. Thus, there is a heavenly hierarchy, but everyone is satisfied with his post, because he understands the fact that he is not capable of any greater experience.

The nine spheres are:

  • First Sphere: The moon - those who abandoned their vows (Cantos II through V). Dante meets Piccarda, sister of Dante's friend Forese Donati, who died shortly after being forcibly removed from her convent. Beatrice discourses on the freedom of the will, and the inviolability of sacred vows.
  • Second Sphere: Mercury - those who did good out of a desire for fame (Cantos V through VII). Justinian recounts the history of the Roman Empire. Beatrice explains to Dante the atonement of Christ for the sins of humanity.
  • Third Sphere: Venus - those who did good out of love (Cantos VIII and IX). Dante meets Charles Martel of Anjou, who decries those who adopt inappropriate vocations, and Cunizza da Romano. Folquet de Marseilles points out Rahab, the brightest soul among those of this sphere.
  • Fourth Sphere: The sun - souls of the wise (Cantos X through XIV). Dante is addressed by St. Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican, who recounts the life of St. Francis of Assisi and laments the corruption of the Dominican Order. Dante is then met by St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan who recounts the life of St. Dominic, and laments the corruption of the Franciscan Order. Finally, Aquinas introduces King Solomon, who answers Dante's question about the doctrine of the resurrection of the body.
  • Fifth Sphere: Mars - those who fought for Christianity (Cantos XIV through XVIII). The souls in this sphere form an enormous cross. Dante speaks with the soul of his ancestor Cacciaguida, who praises the former virtues of the residents of Florence, recounts the rise and fall of Florentine families, and foretells Dante's exile from Florence before finally introducing some notable warrior souls (among them Joshua, Roland, Charlemagne, Godfrey of Bouillon, and others).
  • Sixth Sphere: Jupiter - those who personified justice (Cantos XVIII through XX).
  • Seventh Sphere: Saturn - the contemplative (Cantos XXI and XXII). For example, Monks are found here.
  • Eighth Sphere: The fixed stars - the blessed (Cantos XXII through XXVII). Here, Dante is tested on faith by Saint Peter, hope by Saint James, and love by Saint John the Evangelist. Dante justifies his medieval belief in astrology that the power of constellations draw themselves from God.
  • Ninth Sphere: The Primum Mobile ("First/Best Mover") - angels (Cantos XXVII through XXIX).
Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the highest Heaven; from Gustave Doré's illustrations to the Divine Comedy Paradiso Canto 31

Beatrice leaves Dante with Saint Bernard who prays to Mary on behalf of Dante and Dante is allowed to see both Jesus and Mary. From here, Dante ascends to a substance beyond physical existence, called the Empyrean Heaven (Cantos XXX through XXXIII). Here he comes face-to-face with God Himself, and is granted understanding of the Divine and of human nature. His vision is improved beyond that of human comprehension. God appears as three equally large rings spinning within each other representing the Holy Spirit with the essence of each part of God, who according to Dante can equally be called a plural and a singular. After this vision, the book ends with Dante's vision growing ever stronger, and the vision of God becomes equally inimitable and inexplicable that no word can come close to explaining what he saw, offering him a vision how Divine Love is the power behind existence. Essentially, Dante described as much as one can in words the experience of the beatific vision.

Sandro Botticelli's Chart of Hell ca. 1490

Thematic concern

The Divine Comedy can be described simply as an allegory: Each canto, and the episodes therein, can contain many alternate meanings. Dante's allegory, however, is more complex, and, in explaining how to read the poem

The structure of the poem, likewise, is quite complex, with mathematical and numerological patterns arching throughout the work, particularly threes and nines. What has made the poem as great as it is are its particularly human qualities: Dante's skillful delineation of the characters he encounters in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise; his bitter denunciations of Florentine and Italian politics; and his powerful poetic imagination. Dante's use of real characters, according to Dorothy Sayers in her introduction to her translation of "L'Inferno", allows Dante the freedom of not having to involve the reader in description, and allows him to "[make] room in his poem for the discussion of a great many subjects of the utmost importance, thus widening its range and increasing its variety."

Dante called the poem "Comedy" (the adjective "Divine" added later in the 16th century) because poems in the ancient world were classified as High ("Tragedy") or Low ("Comedy"). Low poems had happy endings and were of everyday or vulgar subjects, while High poems were for more serious matters. Dante was one of the first in the Middle Ages to write of a serious subject, the Redemption of man, in the low and vulgar Italian language and not the Latin language as one might expect for such a serious topic.

Response and criticism

The work was not always so well-regarded. After being recognized as a masterpiece in the first centuries after its publication, the work was largely ignored during the Enlightenment, only to be "rediscovered" by the romantic writers of the nineteenth century. Later authors as disparate as William Blake, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett, and James Joyce have drawn on it for inspiration, while modern poets, including Seamus Heaney, Robert Pinsky, and William Merwin, have given translations of all or parts of the book. William Blake illustrated the Comedy and the engravings of Gustave Doré are widely used in modern editions. Salvador Dalí also composed a cycle of paintings from each section of the Commedia.

Divine Comedy and Islamic Philosophy

In 1919 Professor Miguel Asin Y Palacios, a Spanish scholar and a Catholic priest, published La Escatologia musulman en la Divina Comedia ("Islamic Eschatology and the Divine Comedy"). This was an account, compiled after years of extensive study, of parallels Palacios had discovered between Islamic philosophy and the eschatology of the Divine Comedy. The similarities pervade the entire poem. Palacios concluded that Dante derived most of the features of and episodes about the hereafter from two main sources: the Hadith and the Kitab al Miraj (translated into Latin in 1264 or shortly before I. Heullant-Donat and M.-A. Polo de Beaulieu, "Histoire d'une traduction," in Le Livre de l'échelle de Mahomet, Latin edition and French translation by Gisèle Besson and Michèle Brossard-Dandré, Collection Lettres Gothiques, Le Livre de Poche, 1991, p. 22 with note 37 as Liber Scale Machometi, i.e. The Book of Muhammad's Ladder) concerning the Prophet's ascension to Heaven and the spiritual visions of Ibn al Arabi. The Divine Comedy was therefore not, in Palacios' opinion, an entirely original work - as had been heretofore assumed - since Dante had before him a readymade pattern based on Islamic writings on the afterlife. (This was particularly ironic, in light of the fact that in Canto XXVIII of the Inferno Dante consigned the Islamic supreme prophet Muhammad to the eighth circle of hell, as a "seminator di scandalo e di scisma" - a "sower of scandal and schism" - in line with then-current Catholic dogma regarding Islam, as evidenced by the title of the first Latin translation of the Qu'ran: Lex Mahumet pseudoprophete.)

The publication of the work placed Palacios in the eye of a storm. His critics included nationalist Italians, the Roman Catholic clergy and other European Christians. [2]. Professor Asin, however, faced up to his critics by enumerating the possible sources from which Dante could have obtained the salient features of Islamic eschatalogy.

The issue is still divisive. One point which puzzled scholars was that Dante lived in a Europe for which the door between the Christian west and the Islamic east had largely been shut. How then did he gain the knowledge about or come into contact with Islamic texts? For such reasons, Francesco Gabrieli, one of the most famous Orientalists of the twentieth century was a strenuous opponent of the Arabic theory, through his entire intellectual career. Gabrieli estimated that the results of Asin Palacios’ research were not “altogether convincing”. He argued that the linguistic barrier existing in the Middle Ages would have made it hazardous to reach the same conclusions as postulated by Palacios. According to him the opposition of the Romance philologists and the Dantisti is not only due to “intrinsic improbabilities” but as well to scepticism regarding some claimed similarities. Finally another crucial factor mentioned by the scholar is the lack of any existing evidence of the vehicle “through which these Islamic descriptions of the other world could have been transmitted to Europe and Italy’s in Dante’s time”. While dismissing the probability of influences from the Murcian mystic Ibn Arabi and the Syrian Abul ‘Ala al Ma’ari, which are consistent in Palacios work Gabrieli recognized that “It would now seem to be at least possible, if not probable, that Dante may have known the Liber scalae and have taken from it certain images and concepts of Muslim eschatology”. More recently, Giorgio Battistoni brings to light further evidence: the role that commissioned Jewish translators working at the time in European circles would have played in making such Arabic texts available to Christendom [3].

Original copies

Only two known copies of the original manuscript still remain. One is in Milan, and the other is owned by the Asiatic Society of Bombay. In 1930, Benito Mussolini offered the society one million pounds sterling for the book, but was flatly refused.

According to the Società Dantesca Italiana, no original manuscript written by Dante survived; there are many manuscript copies from the 14th and 15th centuries (more than 800 are listed on their site [4]).

Popular Culture

The Divine Comedy has been a source of inspiration for countless artists for almost seven centuries — as one of the most well known and greatest artistic works in the Western tradition, its influence on culture cannot be overestimated.


  • Author L. Frank Baum utilized its structure as an inspiration for Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz.
  • Authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote a modern sequel, Inferno, in which a book author dies during a fan convention and finds himself in Hell. He escapes with the aid of various characters he meets along the way (including Benito Mussolini and Billy the Kid].
  • The Dante Club is a novel by Matthew Pearl which tells the story of various American poets translating The Divine Comedy in post-civil war Boston. At the same time, a killer takes inspiration from the punishments in Dante's Inferno.
  • Author Mark E. Rogers used the structure of Dante's hell in his comedic novel Samurai Cat Goes to Hell. Rogers' take on the Inferno is a violent, pun-laden, parodical conclusion to his series of Samurai Cat books. It also has Nazi dinosaurs.
  • Author Nick Tosches's In The Hand of Dante weaves a contemporary tale about the finding of an original manuscript of the Divine Comedy with an imagined account of Dante's years composing the work; see official website.
  • Author Monique Wittig's Virgile, Non (published in English as Across the Acheron) is a lesbian-feminist retelling of the Divine Comedy set in the utopia/dystopia of second-wave feminism.
  • Neil Gaiman]s Sandman comic series features a heavily Dante-inspired Hell, including the woods of Suicide, the Malebolge, and the City of Dis.
  • Vertigo comics's Lucifer, based on characters from Neil Gaiman's Sandman, featuring aspects of a Dante-inspired Hell and Heaven, particularly the Primum Mobile.
  • Vertigo comics's Kid Eternity, in which Kid and his companion Jerry Sullivan travel to a Dante-inspired Hell to free a partner of Kid's. The structure of the comic also draws features from Dante's Inferno.
  • Geoff Ryman's The Child Garden, set in a Socialist future London, deals with, in part, an opera adaptation of the Comedy which uses holography.
  • Betty Ford's Healing and Hope]', which uses Dante's structure as an analogy for the stages of alcoholism.
  • T. S. Eliot uses extracts from the Inferno as both epigram and preface to The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
  • Pope Benedict XVI has said that part of his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, was inspired by Canto XXXIII of "Paradise". Paragraph 39 of the encyclical says "Love is the light—and in the end, the only light—that can always illuminate a world grown dim...".
  • Karl Marx uses a paraphrase of Purgatory 5:13 as a motto for Das Kapital: Segui il tuo corso, e lascia dir le genti ("follow your own road, and let the people talk").
  • Jeff Long's The Descent is based on Dante's work, and makes both blatant and implied references to it.
  • Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho begins with the words “Abandon all hope ye who enter here”.
  • Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills uses Dante’s Inferno as a model for the trek made by two young black poets who spend the days before Christmas doing odd jobs in an affluent African American community. The young men soon discover the price paid by the inhabitants of Linden Hills for pursuing the American dream.
  • The seven novels in Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality series depict Heaven and Hell as having structures closely based on those in the Divine Comedy. (Purgatory does not imitate Dante's structure, however, because the Incarnations' universe follows different theological rules.)
  • Hannibal by Thomas Harris, makes several references to Dante and the Inferno.
  • Dialogues II: Bardo, author Stephen Spignesi's sequel to his novel Dialogues, is a modern retelling of The Divine Comedy. The main character Tory makes a journey across America, from Mystic, Connecticut, to Paradise Valley, Arizona, encountering people along the way who parallel characters from Dante's poem.
  • California surfers Sandow Birk and Marcus Sanders made a freely adapted version of the Divine Comedy (2004-2005), whose illustrations, variations on the original, and language place it clearly within a modern American landscape. A review in the San Francisco Chronicle praises the punch and sensibility of its re-imaginings (for example "St. Peter as a paunchy rent-a-cop, Dante's beloved Beatrice as an earthy chola...St. Thomas Aquinas has become a street preacher"[5]).


  • Franz Liszt's Symphony to Dante's Divina Commedia (completed 1856) has three movements: "Inferno", "Purgatorio" and "Magnificat" (originally the third movement was to be called "Paradise": dissuaded by Wagner on this plan, Liszt completed the work by a "Magnificat"). Liszt also composed a Dante Sonata (started 1837, completed 1849).
  • An Irish band called The Divine Comedy, centered on Neil Hannon, also exists. Their music style has influences of classic poetry in general.
  • Paul Simon may have used the Divine Comedy for the inspiration of his song "You Can Call Me Al" in 1986.
  • Actress/Supermodel Milla Jovovich, as Milla, released her debut album under the name The Divine Comedy. The Divine Comedy consists of a collection of acoustic pop and folk songs drawn from Jovovich's Slavic background.
  • Italian progressive rock band Metamorfosi has released two concept albums based on the Divine Comedy, Inferno (in 1972) and the more recent follow on Paradiso.
  • Robert W. Smith's (ASCAP) The Divine Comedy is a four-movement symphony for wind ensemble which depicts four stages of Dante's journey in a tone poem-like symphonic structure. The movements are entitled "The Inferno," "Purgatorio," "The Ascension" (though it is not one of the books of the actual work by Dante, the composer felt it appropriate to separate Dante's experiences in Eden from his climb up Purgatory Mountain), and lastly "Paradiso."
  • Heavy metal power metal band Iced Earth paid tribute to the poem with an epic song entitled "Dante's Inferno". Clocking in at 16 minutes and 29 seconds, and featuring long instrumental sections, abrupt tempo changes, and a pseudo-Gregorian chant choir, the song is found on the 1995 album Burnt Offerings. The song also appears on the 2 disc limited edition version of their Days of Purgatory album, in a very slightly modified fashion. It is also performed live on their Alive in Athens double live CD.
  • Punk singer Mike Watt's third solo album, The Secondman's Middle Stand (Columbia Records, 2004), is a concept album (he likes to call it a "punk opera") that derives its structure from The Divine Comedy, with three sections of three songs each. He tells his story of a prolonged illness he suffered a few years earlier, each section denoted to be "Hell" (a metaphor for Watt's illness), "Purgatory" (his recuperation), and "Paradise" (celebrating his healing).
  • F.M. Einheit of Einstürzende Neubauten and Andreas Ammer collaborated on an experimental recording called Radio Inferno that adapts The Divine Comedy in the format of a radio play.
  • Industrial band Skinny Puppy used an illustration found in the Inferno as the cover to their single "Dig It".
  • Progressive metal band Symphony X also pays tribute to the poem with an epic song entitled "The Divine Wings of Tragedy", although it contains some passages of famous classical music, such as The Planets by Gustav Holst.
  • Thrash metal band Sepultura's new album is based entirely on The Divine Comedy. Entitled Dante XXI, it was released on March 14, 2006
  • Zao refer to the Divine Comedy on their 1999 album Liberate te ex Inferis, covering the first five circles of the Inferno.
  • Thom Yorke of the band Radiohead has also referenced Dante's Inferno as a recurring source of inspiration for his music and many references to the poem can be found in the band's lyrics. “Pyramid Song” from the album Amnesiac is loaded with Inferno references.
  • Tangerine Dream has released albums setting the first two parts of The Divine Comedy to music: Inferno is a recording of a live performance at the St Marien zu Bernau Cathedral in 2001, and Purgatorio is a studio album from 2004. Both feature an unusual mix of female vocals and their trademark electronics. The conclusion of the trilogy, Paradise, is to be released in 2005. A DVD was released of the 1911 film by Giuseppe de Liguoro set to the album Inferno in 2005 in the United Kingdom [6]
  • The Tea Party's 2004 release of The Seven Circles is said to be inspired, in part, by Dante's work, allusions to which can be seen in lyrics within some of the tracks.
  • Folk singer Loreena McKennitt's song "Dante's Prayer", the final track on her 1997 album The Book of Secrets, is based on Dante's work.
  • Grunge band Nirvana featured artwork based on 'Inferno' on their debut album Bleach.
  • Canadian post-rock group As The Poets Affirm took their name from a passage in Dante's Inferno.
  • Asaki's first album, Shinkyoku, is also the name of Divine Comedy in Japanese Kanji.
  • Acoustic-rock band Your Forgotten Love has a song entitled "The Dark Wood of Error", the name of the first canto of the 'Inferno'. The lyrics to the song are arranged from lines in that canto.
  • The Bright River is a hip-hop retelling of Dante's Inferno by a traditional storyteller, Tim Barsky, with a live soundtrack. performed by some of the best hip-hop and klezmer musicians in the Bay Area. A dizzying theatrical journey through a world spinning helplessly out of control, the show sends audiences on a mass-transit tour of the Afterlife. see
  • In Weezer's latest album "Make Believe" released May 10, 2005, there is hidden text in the pictures. The text reads "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita".
  • The song "Roll Right" on the album Evil Empire by Rage against the machine contains the refrain 'Send 'em to tha seventh level!' referencing the seventh circle (or level) of Hell, where the violent are held.
  • Bad Religion, an influential hardcore punk/punk rock band from Southern California, took inspiration from Dante's Hell for the back of the cover of their first album How Could Hell Be Any Worse?


  • The Gates of Hell sculptural group by Auguste Rodin. Dante is the figure sitting at the top of the gate contemplating the horrors of hell. This figure was later isolated and became Rodin's thinker.

Visual arts

  • Sandro Botticelli made the most famous set of illustrations during the Renaissance.
  • John Flaxman's illustrations were influential across Europe in the Eighteenth century because of their radically minimalist style.
  • Eugene Delacroix made his name with The Barque of Dante. depicting Dante and Virgil crossing the Styx.
  • Before his death in 1827, William Blake, the English poet and painter, planned and executed several watercolour illustrations to the Divine Comedy. Though he did not finish the series before his death, they remain a highly powerful visual interpretation of the poem.
  • Gustave Doré made the most famous illustrations in the 19th century.
  • Jimbo in Purgatory by Gary Panter, an adaptation of Dante’s Purgatorio, melded with Boccaccio’s Decameron, a bit of the Canterbury Tales, Milton and John Dryden alongside pop culture references. [7][8]
  • Contemporary artist Jennifer Strange offers dynamic charcoal drawings inspired by the Inferno and Purgatory in the Commedia Inspired by Dante.
  • Wayne Barlowe]s book, Barlowe's Inferno, containing paintings of Hell and an accompanying narrative, is partially inspired by Dante's Inferno.
  • Purgatorio - Surrealist Illustrations based on Doré's engravings by Shlomo Felberbaum,
  • Mickey's Inferno is a comic-book adaptation written by Guido Martina and drawn by Angelo Bioletto featuring classic Disney characters including Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Donald Duck published by the then-Italian Disney comic book licensee Mondadori in the monthly Topolino from Oct. 1949 to March 1950. An English-language version appeared in Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #666 [March 2006].

Performing arts (film & theater)

  • The 1935 motion picture Dante's Inferno directed by Harry Lachman, written by Philip Klein and starring Spencer Tracy is about a fairground attraction based on the Inferno.
  • The interpretation of hell in the novel and 1998 film What Dreams May Come is heavily inspired by Dante's Inferno.
  • The 2005 BBC drama series Messiah IV: The Harrowing focuses on a serial killer who takes inspiration from the Inferno to punish his or her victims.
  • Dante's Inferno - The epic film of a lost young man's journey through hell, which looks like the modern world.
  • Referenced throughout the movie Se7en, mostly in reference to the Seven Deadly Sins.
  • Jean-Luc Godard's 2004 film Notre musique is structured in three parts, Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise respectively, alluding to the Divine Comedy.
  • Stan Brakhage created in 1987 a six minute hand-painted film, The Dante Quartet, that is inspired by the Divine Comedy.
  • Peter Greenaway adapted Cantos I to VIII for BBC Two as A TV Dante (1987-1990).
  • Fullmetal Alchemist used the idea of the Seven Deadly Sins, incorporating them as demonic homunculus, also using the name Dante as their controller and creator. (2001-Present).
  • Angel (TV series) A reference to the book and the nine circles of hell in the Season 3 Episode 'A New World'.
  • In the 2003]] film Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Captain Jack Sparrow states that Captain Barbossa and his crew will suffer horrible fates because "The deepest circle of hell is reserved for betrayers and mutineers."
  • The movie Clerks is said to be loosely based upon the 9 levels of hell with 9 sections of the movie and the main character's name Dante.
  • Dante's "Inferno" is currently being produced as part of a trilogy which is to include "Purgatorio" and "Paradiso" [9] (See

Digital arts & computer games

  • In the Footsteps of Dante is a Neverwinter Nights module which combines concepts, setting, characters, and plot events from Inferno with a continuation to the storyline of Planescape: Torment.
  • Project Dante, of the Polish artist Dariusz Nowak-Nova, is an example of how the Internet and new technologies can contribute to the formation of various approaches to literature, and a new way to conceive the book.
  • Devil May Cry 3: Dante's Awakening, a video game in the Devil May Cry series, very loosely based on the Divine Comedy by the use of allusions, including the game's protagonist Dante, and other characters like Vergil and Cerberus. Many of the enemies are named after the Seven Deadly Sins, such as "Hell Pride or "Hell Lust"
  • Doom]', a video game where the third episode takes place in Hell, in such places as Limbo and Dis.
  • Tamashii no Mon, translated as 'Gate of Souls' is a computer game developed by Koei and released on the PC98 computer system in 1994 and was never released outside of Japan. It is an Action Adventure game that closely follows Dante's journey through Inferno.
  • Final Fantasy IV, which features four Elemental Lords named Rubicante, Scarmiglione, Barbariccia, and Cagnazzo, after members of the Malebranche. A mid-game boss, Calcabrina, also has the name of a Malebranche demon.
  • Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow and Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow which feature spear-wielding flying demons named after the Malebranche.

External links

Dante Societies around the World

Part of this article consists of modified text from Wikipedia, and the article is therefore licensed under GFDL.